Aug, 28, the day before the start of a new school year, had dawned sunny and hot in the village of Plainfield, Ill. (pop. 3,959). By afternoon a mass of black clouds had moved in, but the young athletes of Plainfield High were hardly concerned. The varsity and junior varsity football squads, 107 members in all, were milling about the weight room and the smaller of the school’s two gyms, where head coach Wayne DeSutter, 46, had sent them after lightning cracked over the playing field. In the main gym, 36 members of coach Kathy Cartwright’s girls’ volleyball team had just set up nets for the afternoon’s season opener. Outside, a light rain swelled to a downpour, then turned to hail as the girls waited for their opponents to arrive. Cartwright, 41, ordered her freshmen onto the court for warm-up drills.
Minutes later, everything went dark. And as Cartwright started for the school foyer to see what was wrong, the sound of howling wind and pelting hailstones began to give her an eerie feeling. In Tornado Alley, the twister-prone region that stretches from Texas to Michigan, abrupt, severe weather changes sometimes precede deadly wind funnels. “I sensed that the room didn’t feel right.” she recalls. “It was like something was tapping me on the shoulder telling me to get the kids out.” Then the students felt a sharp popping sensation in their ears—indicative of a sudden drop in air pressure and an omen of what was in store. As the school’s fire alarm let out a piercing wail, Cartwright spun around and yelled: “Get out of here, now! Move it!”
What ensued was an afternoon of terror. Fighting their way through stinging soot, whirling shards of glass and flying chunks of ceiling, the volleyball players scrambled into the corridor outside the gym. Pouring into the same hallway, De-Sutter’s football players, who only moments before had been cheering what they thought was a false fire alarm, fell into positions along the wall. As DeSutter shouted for the students to cover their heads, some players pulled on helmets. Others clung to the stair railing, fighting the intense suction that would ultimately hurt a semitrailer truck into the school’s science classrooms, killing teacher Stephen Hunt, 43. A quick-thinking student put a helmet on Adam DeSutter, the coach’s 11-year-old son, who had come to watch his older brother, Kevin, 16, practice with the rest of the football team. Cartwright instinctively fell on top of two of her charges and held them tight. “We’re going to make it, we’re going to make it!” she yelled, though she doubted that they could hear her over the roar of crashing debris.
When the winds of up to 260 miles per hour finally passed after a few minutes, Plainfield High athletic director Chuck Harris, 43, burrowed out of his office to see a flood of light coming from the main gym. “It had been so dark, and now I could see all this light, too much light for the afternoon,” he recalls. “Then I realized the roof had collapsed over the gym.” As he began scanning the lines of students for injuries, he worried also about what had become of his 14-year-old son, Jason, a member of the football team. As a father he was desperate to find his son: as a teacher he knew he had to remain calm. Inching his way down the hall, he finally spotted Jason near the ruins of the weight room. “I wanted to grab and hug him, but it wouldn’t have been fair to the other kids,” he says. Then he and the coaches took a head count. “I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted when all the numbers came up,” says DeSutter.
The kids weren’t safe yet, though. As the smell of gas began to leak from the chemistry lab, the coaches realized they had to evacuate the school. They lined up the football players, many of whom were in their stocking feet because they were forbidden to wear cleats inside. Snaking out the back door of the school, the students found the neighborhood flattened. “We didn’t know where we were,” says Ben Speicker, 16. “There were no trees, no houses, no landmarks.” DeSutter, who looked down the street and saw that his own house lay in ruins, gave silent thanks that his sons were with him and his wife, Katherine, was at work.
The coaches led their athletes through downtown Plainfield, sidestepping broken glass and live wires. Some players who had changed from cleats to shoes in the moments before the tornado carried teammates on their backs for the half-mile trek. Harris was worried about his 11-year-old son, Ryan, who he later discovered had survived the tornado by hiding in a friend’s bathtub. But, he says, “I kept telling myself, ‘I have to keep these kids moving, I’m responsible for them.’ ” He urged the youngsters on as they tried to break ranks to look for their families. At last, they tumbled onto the front lawn of Central Elementary School, which had been spared by the storm. Anxious parents, directed there by high school administrators, rushed toward their children. Says DeSutter: “It was the greatest sight in the world to see parents grabbing their kids.”
The tornado, which rampaged on to Crest Hill and Joliet, had left 27 dead, 350 injured, and more than 1,000 buildings damaged or destroyed. Until a new school is built. Plainfield High students will have to meet in split-shift sessions at a nearby junior high. But despite the devastation, many in town are counting their blessings. Says Cartwright: “None of us should have made it out of there alive. It’s a miracle we did.”
—Charles E. Cohen, Civia Tamarkin in Plainfield